United States District Court, S.D. Indiana, New Albany Division
CARLA D. COMBS, Plaintiff,
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of the Social Security, Administration, Defendant.
REPORT AND RECOMMENDATION ON COMPLAINT FOR JUDICIAL
MCVICKER LYNCH, UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE
matter was referred to the Magistrate Judge under 28 U.S.C.
§636(b)(1)(B) and Fed.R.Civ.P. 72(b) for a report and
recommendation on its appropriate disposition. As addressed
below, the Magistrate Judge recommends that the District
Judge REVERSE AND REMAND the decision of the Commissioner of
the Social Security Administration that plaintiff Carla D.
Combs is not disabled.
Combs applied for Disability Insurance Benefits (DIB) under
Title II of the Social Security Act, alleging she has been
disabled since April 26, 2013. Acting for the Commissioner of
the Social Security Administration following a hearing in
September 2013, an administrative law judge (ALJ) issued a
decision on October 30, 2015, finding that Ms. Combs has not
been disabled from her alleged onset date through the date of
his decision. The Appeals Council denied review of the
ALJ's decision on December 9, 2016, rendering the
ALJ's decision for the Commissioner final. Ms. Combs
timely filed this action under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) for
review of the Commissioner's decision.
Combs argues that the Commissioner's decision must be
reversed and remanded because the ALJ did not evaluate a
statement from her employer about her job performance and
work-related abilities and limitations. She also maintains
that the ALJ's assessment of her subjective complaints
was “patently wrong.” The court will first
describe the legal framework for analyzing disability claims,
the standard of review and the ALJ's findings, and then
address Ms. Combs's assertions of error.
for Proving Disability
prove disability, a claimant must show that she is unable to
“engage in any substantial gainful activity by reason
of any medically determinable physical or mental impairment
which can be expected to result in death or which has lasted
or can be expected to last for a continuous period of not
less than twelve months.” 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A)
(DIB benefits); 42 U.S.C. § 1382c(a)(3)(A) (supplemental
security income (SSI) benefits). Ms. Combs is disabled if her
impairments are of such severity that she is not able to
perform the work she previously engaged in and, if based on
her age, education, work experience, and residual functional
capacity, she cannot engage in any other kind of substantial
gainful work that exists in significant numbers in the
national economy. 42 U.S.C. §423(d)(2)(A). The Social
Security Administration (“SSA”) has implemented
these statutory standards by, in part, prescribing a
five-step sequential evaluation process for determining
disability. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520.
one asks if the claimant is currently engaged in substantial
gainful activity; if she is, then she is not disabled. Step
two asks whether the claimant's impairments, singly or in
combination, are severe; if they are not, then she is not
disabled. A severe impairment is one that
“significantly limits [a claimant's] physical or
mental ability to do basic work activities.” 20 C.F.R.
§ 404.1520(c). The third step is an analysis of whether
the claimant's impairments, either singly or in
combination, meet or medically equal the criteria of any of
the conditions in the Listing of Impairments, 20 C.F.R. Part
404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. The Listing of Impairments
includes medical conditions defined by criteria that the SSA
has predetermined are disabling, so that if a claimant meets
all of the criteria for a listed impairment or presents
medical findings equal in severity to the criteria for the
most similar listed impairment, then the claimant is
presumptively disabled and qualifies for benefits. Sims
v. Barnhart, 309 F.3d 424, 428 (7th Cir. 2002).
claimant's impairments do not satisfy a listing, then her
residual functional capacity (RFC) is determined for purposes
of steps four and five. RFC is a claimant's ability to do
work on a regular and continuing basis despite her
impairment-related physical and mental limitations. 20 C.F.R.
§ 404.1545. At the fourth step, if the claimant has the
RFC to perform her past relevant work, then she is not
disabled. The fifth step asks whether there is work in the
relevant economy that the claimant can perform, based on her
age, work experience, education, and RFC; if so, she is not
individual claiming disability bears the burden of proof at
steps one through four. Bowen v. Yuckert, 482 U.S.
137, 146 n.5 (1987). If the claimant meets that burden, the
Commissioner has the burden at step five to show that work
exists in significant numbers in the national economy that
the claimant can perform, given her age, education, work
experience, and functional capacity. Young v.
Barnhart, 362 F.3d 995, 1000 (7th Cir. 2004); 20 C.F.R.
for Review of the ALJ's Decision
review of the Commissioner's (or ALJ's) factual
findings is deferential. A court must affirm if no error of
law occurred and if the findings are supported by substantial
evidence. Dixon v. Massanari, 270 F.3d 1171, 1176
(7th Cir. 2001). Substantial evidence means evidence that a
reasonable person would accept as adequate to support a
conclusion. Id. The standard demands more than a
scintilla of evidentiary support, but does not demand a
preponderance of the evidence. Wood v. Thompson, 246
F.3d 1026, 1029 (7th Cir. 2001).
is required to articulate a minimal, but legitimate,
justification for the decision to accept or reject specific
evidence of a disability. Scheck v. Barnhart, 357
F.3d 697, 700 (7th Cir. 2004). The ALJ need not address every
piece of evidence, but he cannot ignore an entire line of
evidence that undermines his conclusions, and he must provide
sufficient detail to allow a reviewing court to trace the
path of his reasoning. See Arnett v. Astrue, 676
F.3d 586, 592 (7th Cir. 2012). In addition, the ALJ